Sports

Simone Biles’ Groundbreaking New Vault Sends a Message

The GOAT will not be told what she can and can’t do.

Simone Biles twisting in the air against a black background as she vaults.
Simone Biles at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Hanns Martin Schleyer Hall in Stuttgart, Germany, on Oct. 12, 2019. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Simone Biles has nothing left to prove. Inarguably the greatest gymnast of all time, she’s obliterated every world championship medal record and is widely expected to leave the Tokyo Olympics this summer with a neck laden in gold. On the apparatus of vault, for example, her difficulty is already so high, and her execution so clean—her amplitude off the table, her form in the air, her chest position on landing—that she is the heavy favorite to win her second Olympic title on the event.

And yet. This month, Biles casually tweeted two clips of training footage of an even more difficult vault, eight cumulative seconds that exploded the Gymternet’s head:

So what did you, a normal person, just see? How many flips was that? What makes this flippy thing more special than Biles’ extant repertoire of flippy things? That, sports friends, is a Yurchenko double-pike: a roundoff back-handspring approach to the vaulting table, to a double flip in a straight-legged position. (Technically Biles’ body completes two and a half flips, as the back-handspring approach starts her upside-down.)

Yes, it’s still a work in progress; Biles finishes on a soft crash pad in a controlled over-rotation to minimize injury and strain. However, her amplitude is so high, and her landing form is so exquisite (look at how high that chest is!) that soon she’ll be able to land this skill on a competition mat without a problem. The earlier clip Biles posted, where she landed into a foam pit, could have just been goofing around. Now? Only Biles and her beguiling French coaches, Laurent and Cecile Landi, know for sure—but it sure looks like she means business.

So what’s the big deal here? Aren’t all of Biles’ skills spectacular? Well, yes. But: This is truly next-level work—and, better yet, it sends the world a clear message about Biles’ personal autonomy in a sport infamous for ignoring or minimizing that very quality in its athletes.

While the Yurchenko approach is standard for both men and women, women normally add twists into a single flip, or salto. A double salto from a back-handspring approach has never been trained in earnest by a female gymnast. 2012 vaulting and facial expression legend McKayla Maroney once tried a Yurchenko double in the (easier) tucked position at a national team training camp—only to have former national team director Marta Karolyi apply a swift kibosh for its risk. Given how injury-prone Maroney was, this was probably a good call. As the gymnast later explained during a 2016 interview on the GymCastic podcast, an athlete can always stop twisting if a single-salto Yurchenko is going awry. But if something goes wrong in the midst of two flips, it can go very, very wrong.

Indeed, if Karolyi were still in charge of USA Gymnastics—if anyone at USA Gymnastics still possessed the ability to tell Simone Biles what to do—the kibosh would also likely be incoming on the double-pike. And folks have tried: Several concern-trolling articles appeared following the first training video, despite Biles’ exquisite execution. (As with the Biles II floor skill, the handful of men who land the double-pike—including its originator Ioannis Melissanidis, after whom the skill is named in the Men’s Code of Points—do so with markedly worse form.)

I would go so far as to say that the best thing about Simone Biles doing this vault—besides how stunning the skill itself is—is how epically she is sticking it to those concern trolls and to anyone who feels entitled to her business. Not only do I worship this vault and hope we all get to see it in Tokyo—even just once—but this training footage reminds us that the power dynamics at USA Gymnastics have tipped almost entirely in Biles’ favor. Nobody gets to tell Simone Biles that she can’t do a vault she can obviously do.

Biles is not developing a stratospheric (and dangerous) new vault because she needs the score. Simone Biles, of all people, does not need to upgrade the difficulty of her vault. She is the overwhelming favorite to win gold in Tokyo regardless. Plus, along with two floor skills and a beam dismount, she already has a vault named after her: the current most difficult vault in the Women’s Code of Points, a skill tied with an infamous “vault of death” called the Produnova—which itself recently had its difficulty start value punitively lowered by the Women’s Technical Committee of the International Gymnastics Federation for being too dangerous.

Indeed, if anything, given the WTC’s propensity for punitively diminishing or lowballing the start values of skills they consider too risky, Biles could possibly incur negative effects on her score for competing the future Vault Biles II. The Produnova devaluation, plus the controversial undervaluation of Biles’ eponymous beam dismount at the 2019 World Championships, set the precedent for this possibility. (Biles called “bullshit” on that devaluation back in September, USA Gymnastics released an excoriating statement, and the FIG released a counter-statement scolding Biles for her big dangery dangerousness.)

This is why the immediate Gymternet reaction to the double-pike training video, aside from awe, was to wryly suggest that the WTC would give the Biles II a start value of 2.4 (the same as a simple front handspring with a half-turn and zero flips of any kind, the vault I competed as an 11-year-old in 1987; the Biles and Produnova are currently both 6.4).

It’s true that the double-pike is an extraordinarily risky vault. But Biles is a gymnast of extraordinary ability who does not compete skills until she has them dialed in. Simone Biles does not chuck. Like the vast majority of seasoned elites, she will only compete what she can do safely. In fact, she has famously refused to train the Produnova, quipping: “I’m not trying to die.” Presumably, she’s still not trying to die. A grown adult of 22 years, Biles knows what’s best for her, and she uses the control she wields in the sport for all sorts of good (such as forcibly calling out authorities who were supposed to protect gymnasts)—and also to be the gymnast she wants to be. If this means upgrading to a vault that no other woman in the world could or should attempt, possibly ever, all the better to cement her legacy as the GOAT.

In continuing to train this vault, the namesake of the future Biles II is demonstrating a level of personal autonomy heretofore unseen in a sport that until very recently valued obedience to authority above all else—which happened to enable decades of unconscionable abuse. It remains to be seen whether any gymnast in the post-Biles era will be granted this much power over her own body or destiny. But if this is yet another precedent Simone Biles sets in the sport, unlike the undervaluation of her beam dismount, it’s a precedent worth following.

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